In the lackluster Avengers: Age of Ultron, things become heated between Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). The Hulk’s head has just been invaded by Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olson), causing him to let loose his fury on unsuspecting city streets. Banner is having an existential crisis; Widow is sidling up close.
Before they have a chance to kiss, Banner turns away, describing himself as a monster — no woman should be subjected to such uncontained rage. Widow tells her own story about becoming an assassin. She was made infertile to ensure that she’d become a killer with no empathy. She tells her green courter that she too is a monster.
It would be hard to imagine any male Avenger offer a similar monologue, with sad violins and watery eyes, regarding his infertility. But this scene touches upon something deeper in our cultural psyche in how we regard the modern family.
As Sophie Gilbert points out, even the pope can’t help but take a dig at non-procreating humans. He calls them “selfish,” although, as Gilbert writes, this papal criticism comes from a celibate man who has sworn off sex entirely.
The decision not to procreate affects both sexes equally, yet we don’t weigh the decision with the same gravity. A friend claims that Black Widow’s monstrosity isn’t infertility, but being an assassin. But if Banner claimed that he’d shun violence if only he had children that would be considered effeminate, not a very superhero trait — unless one is a woman, apparently.
(On that note, there has been criticism thrown at director Joss Whedon for writing weak female characters. That is not my argument here. This is directed at one specific instance in regards to procreation.)
We reward angry men, part of the comic book world’s fascination with the Hulk. His extreme outbursts alleviate our softer rage. Research has shown that people displaying angry faces are believed to be powerful, a much different perception compared to sad expressions. Anger has a social value; people who express it often gain currency as a no-nonsense leader.
Rather, men who express it. For women, such leadership comes at a cost. As Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg writes regarding professional success in Lean In, “For women, even when they’re recognized for their achievements, they’re often regarded unfavorably.” Women, dubbed “nurturers,” are expected to nurture continuously. When they stray from that role, they’re considered hard, brittle, untrustworthy. Their anger is not a gift.
This assumption spills into family life. Sandberg brings up the reinforced notion that a woman cannot be considered successful in both a career and as a mother. A commitment to one negates the other. This bias is largely subconscious, which is why Whedon probably never found fault with Black Widow’s confession. It seems natural that a woman wouldn’t kill if she had a baby to consider.
Then look at Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). In Age of Ultron we’re introduced to his family while the team is seeking shelter. Apparently he cut a deal in his early days as a superhero: No one could know about his wife and children. As Krishna once instructed the archer Arjuna, killing is Hawkeye’s sacred duty, by any means necessary.
Hawkeye’s paternal role is not insignificant. His wife tells him to be wary of trusting the other Avengers given their combative nature; Banner references the safe house, complete with children, as something he can never offer. Consider the larger narrative: Hawkeye, father and husband, kills despite his family. Black Widow kills because she doesn’t have one.
Religiosity regarding the “family,” and by extension its gender-based roles, has fortunately been shifting. Not everyone, myself included, is onboard for procreation. While my girlfriend and I are not staunch advocates of childlessness, we don’t currently foresee an addition to our family. And it’s no less a family because of it, nor is she less of a woman or I a man.
But puritanism is not dead yet; the religious assumption of a nuclear family persists. Culturally, we’ve made great gains in same-sex marriage over the past half-decade, yet oddly the roles of women, in workplace pay and as caregivers, have not evolved much. Humans have long confused biology with theology.
Yet the thrust for survival is simply not as relevant on an overpopulated planet. Our species, as comedian Louis C.K. brilliantly puts it, has successfully removed itself from the food chain. We can (and do) populate at will. It’s not surprising that religious institutions promote getting it on (and then out) as much as possible, believing procreation to be a duty to God — their deity acquires more followers.
Back here on Earth, however, things look much different. We celebrate a serial batterer in the boxing ring; we overlook football players’ abuses so long as they tackle the hell out of the other team. We allow minor advances that don’t usurp traditional structures, forgetting that every structure is an invention of the human mind. To think we’ve been getting things wrong for eons is too much neuronal firing to consider, too blatant an assault on our fragile egos.
Yet that’s the thing about superheroes: Like all mythological creatures, a traumatic event initiates them into a greater world where things drastically change. Perhaps when Black Widow finds the Hulk in the next chapter, he’ll admit to something that truly exposes his rough edges and not leave this emotional work for the women alone. Then we’ll be able to not only relate to our heroes, but also evolve with them as well.
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